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February 8, 2011

Close calls could lead to better falls

College football teams typically get the ball about three times per quarter.

That means over the course of a game, teams will get about a dozen possessions, though in high-scoring games, there may be more than that.

So, for losing teams that had several games in which they were one possession (eight points) away from winning or forcing overtime, there can be painful feelings of what might have been.

Of course, that can also raise hopes of what could be.

Often times, a frustrating season can be a prelude of better things to come. With a little more experience, a little more luck, some key returning starters and maybe a new coach or a new teammate, near-misses from one season can be transformed into thrilling wins the next. Teams that had losing records or failed to make bowl games could emerge as championship contenders or reach the postseason the next season.

With that in mind, here's a look at eight teams that endured frustration and disappointment in 2010, but had enough close games (and bring back enough starters) to be optimistic in 2011.

ARIZONA STATE
2010 record: 6-6
Losses by eight or fewer points: 4 - at Wisconsin, 20-19; at Oregon State, 31-28; at USC, 34-33; vs. Stanford, 17-13.
Returning starters: 11 offense, 9 defense.
The buzz: The Sun Devils broke even last season, but they didn't qualify for a bowl because two victories were against FCS opponents. But four of Arizona State's six losses were by four or fewer points, and the Sun Devils could have reached a bowl game if they could have made a few more extra points. In a 20-19 loss to Wisconsin, the Sun Devils had a potential tying extra point blocked late in the fourth quarter. Arizona State lost by a point to USC, and the difference in that game was a blocked extra point that USC returned for two points. The Sun Devils had a strong final month of the season, which included that loss to USC, a four-point loss to Stanford and victories over UCLA and Arizona. QB Brock Osweiler played well in the final two games and may be the solution to the Sun Devils' issues there. The entire offense and most of the defense returns next season.
TENNESSEE
2010 record: 6-7
Losses by eight or fewer points: 2 - vs. LSU, 16-14; vs. North Carolina, 30-27, in 2OTs.
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.
The buzz: No doubt, Tennessee was on the wrong end of several blowouts in 2010, but the Volunteers are getting better. They were undefeated in November (yeah, the schedule was softer) and almost beat North Carolina in the Music City Bowl. Lest we forget, Tennessee lost two games (LSU and North Carolina) after time was put back on the clock. They were that close despite enduring key injuries, starting 11 freshmen or sophomores late in the season and lacking depth. All those freshmen, in particular QB Tyler Bray, will be a year older and - after a year of a college weightlifting program - will look more like SEC football players. Defensive linemen Marlon Walls and Ben Martin were projected starters who missed all of last season with injuries. Their return should make the Vols' defense strong up front. The Vols' top three receivers completed their eligibility and that will hurt, but there are some talented young receivers on the roster. Coach Derek Dooley brought in another solid recruiting class, so depth will be better. Though Tennessee may not be ready to challenge for the SEC championship, the Vols figure to improve on last season's six-win total.
CLEMSON
2010 record: 6-7
Losses by eight or fewer points: 5 - at Auburn, 27-24, OT; at North Carolina, 21-16; at Boston College, 16-10; at Florida State, 16-13; vs. USF, 31-26.
Returning starters: 9 offense, 7 defense.
The buzz: Twenty seasons have passed since Clemson last won a conference championship. Even though the Tigers are coming off a six-win season, they may make a run at the ACC title in 2011. Nine offensive and seven defensive starters will return from a team that was frustratingly close to a 10-win season. Five of the Tigers' seven losses were by six or fewer points, including an overtime defeat at the hands of national champion Auburn. All five of those losses were played away from Death Valley, too. The Tigers obviously need to play better on the road. They also need better quarterback play, and sophomore Tajh Boyd is expected to take over there. He was inconsistent in limited action last season, but showed enough flashes for Clemson fans to be optimistic. A stellar recruiting class could provide a boost, too.
TEXAS
2010 record: 5-7
Losses by eight or fewer points: 4 - vs. Oklahoma, 28-20; vs. Iowa State, 28-21; vs. Baylor, 30-22; vs. Texas A&M, 24-17.
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.
The buzz: Don't be surprised if the Longhorns bounce back in a big way from their first losing season under Mack Brown. The 2010 season was a disaster, no way around that. But four of the seven losses were by eight or fewer points. The Longhorns will bring back seven starters on both sides of the ball and figure to get a boost from highly regarded incoming freshman TB Malcolm Brown. He should help Texas' red zone offense, which was nothing short of abysmal last season. The Longhorns scored just 23 touchdowns on 52 red zone opportunities, and they turned the ball over down close too frequently. Junior QB Garrett Gilbert must cut down on his mistakes and improve his leadership skills, but quarterbacks often make significant strides in their third seasons.
HOUSTON
2010 record: 5-7
Losses by eight or fewer points: 3 - at Rice, 34-31; vs. UCF, 40-33; vs. Tulsa, 28-25.
Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense.
The buzz: The NCAA granted QB Case Keenum a sixth year of eligibility. That should ensure the Cougars will bounce back from a disappointing 5-7 season in which three losses were by seven or fewer points. Keenum had thrown for more than 5,000 yards and 44 touchdowns in 2008 and in '09, but he suffered a season-ending injury in the third game of last season. His backup was lost for the year in that game, too. Yet the Cougars still beat Conference USA West Division champ SMU and lost to conference champion UCF by seven points. Along with Keenum, the Cougars return leading rusher Bryce Beall and leading receiver Patrick Edwards. Dangerous receiver/return man Tyron Carrier is back, too. RB Charles Sims returns after sitting out last season following a solid freshman campaign.
CENTRAL MICHIGAN
2010 record: 3-9
Losses by eight or fewer points: 5 - at Temple, 13-10, OT; at Northwestern, 30-25; at Miami (Ohio), 27-20; at Bowling Green, 17-14; at Navy, 38-37.
Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
The buzz: In recent seasons, the Chippewas typically were strong contenders for the MAC championship. They slipped last season and had a difficult October. But they seemed to make progress in November with a victory over Western Michigan, a close loss on the road at Navy and by scoring 31 points in a loss to Toledo. The offense should be strong again with QB Ryan Radcliff, leading rusher Paris Cotton and leading receiver Cody Wilson among the returnees. Both offensive tackles return, too. The key is bolstering the defense.
CALIFORNIA
2010 record: 5-7
Losses by eight or fewer points: 3 - at Arizona, 10-9; vs. Oregon, 15-13; vs. Washington, 16-13.
Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.
The buzz: Normally, going into a season with a new starting quarterback isn't cause for optimism. But Cal's quarterback play has been spotty since Aaron Rodgers left, so a new face under center might be a good thing. Cal will have plenty of options to choose from, with at least four players vying for the starting job. Perhaps coach Jeff Tedford can find one consistent passer among that group. The Bears will return big-time wide receivers in Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen and four regulars along the offensive line. Only five full-time starters return on defense, but beware of redshirt freshman DE Gabe King. Cal has put together back-to-back, top-20 recruiting classes, so there will be an influx of young talent, too. But a point of caution: The Bears were significantly better at home than on the road in 2010, but there are no games in Berkeley next season. Cal will play its home games at AT&T Park in San Francisco while Memorial Stadium is being renovated.
NORTH TEXAS
2010 record: 3-9
Losses by eight or fewer points: 5 - vs. Rice, 32-31; vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, 28-27; vs. Arkansas State, 24-19; vs. Troy, 41-35; vs. Kansas State, 49-41.
Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
The buzz: Don't laugh. The Mean Green may be on the verge of getting mean again. After six consecutive seasons of three or fewer wins, North Texas could be a contender in the Sun Belt race. RB Lance Dunbar rushed for 1,553 yards in '10 and is back. Injuries forced UNT to use four quarterbacks next season, and continuity at that position obviously would be a plus. Look for a significant difference on defense. First-year coach Dan McCarney is a defense-minded guy and put together some solid defensive units when he was at Iowa State. An improved defense should help North Texas turn those near-misses into a few more wins.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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